By Mike Taibbi
It was always going to end this way.
That’s the thought I had day after day as the awful end to America’s longest and losing war played out in video images that were shocking but not surprising.
It’s also the thought I’d heard by way of predictions at the beginning of this terrible misadventure. One of the voices saying America couldn’t actually “win” against whomever we were ultimately at war with belonged to Sadaryab Shirzad, the Pashtun “fixer” my NBC team hired to guide and help us when we left Peshawar in Pakistan to follow the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan. It was mid-November, after 9/11, the Pentagon dropping bombs and ground forces on the terrain in front of us. We were among the handful of journalists in the first convoy to head in as the Taliban were fleeing the provinces and key cities they’d controlled, including Jalalabad where we were headed.
We called Shirzad “Shady,” which seemed to fit our devout and devious helper who kept his own ambitions and predispositions shrouded in mystery as he sized us up. He was from a town near Tora Bora, not far from the cave complexes and remote mountain redoubts where Bin Laden had supposedly holed up. Shady told us he could hook us up with some of the Mujahideen “soldiers of God” who were fighting Taliban forces and maybe even closing in on Bin Laden.
“But,” he said in the clear enough English he’d learned in Peshawar, “there is always fighting. There always will be…”
In that first of many trips to Afghanistan and later Iraq, I neither embraced nor dismissed Shady’s cynical pessimism. 9/11 had been the Pearl Harbor of our time, and the American incursion in those early months was framed by many in America and its allies as the proportional response against the country that had provided sanctuary and support to the authors of that attack.
Shady was resourceful. He’d made a meagre living before he met us transporting factory workers in a small bus that now carried us from story to story, sometimes joining local guerrilla groups in pursuit of fleeing Taliban fighters. He led us into the hills during one skirmish, translating interviews as a pickup truck with a half-dozen bodies in the bed trundled past us. When an apparent targeting error by U.S. bombers left scores of civilians dead and the town of Kama Ado destroyed, Shady took us to what was left of the village and to the hospital where two whole rooms were filled with the bodies of those who’d perished in the bombing.
When he heard of a nest of caves Bin Laden or at least his men had recently abandoned he aimed his bus that way, and found a couple of teenaged boys who said they could get us to those caves, crossing a river on a raft made of two-by-fours lashed atop a couple of inflated truck inner tubes.
As the calendar turned toward December, Shady reported that radio traffic monitored by Mujahideen listeners still revealed snippets of Arab language transmissions… Bin Laden cohorts?… even as U.S. Special Forces were said to be abandoning their pursuit of the terror leader in Afghanistan.
Shady was eventually clear on one point with us: he was ready to abandon Afghanistan too, to get his whole family out of the country no matter how this latest “war” turned out. His brother Imron, who sometimes joined us as an added hand, also wanted out with his wife and children. And, from Shady’s earliest weeks and months with us, this capable and brave man so deeply pessimistic about his own country’s future wanted to know if we could help.
It wasn’t just Shady, of course, who had no expectation that America would achieve its claimed goals for Afghanistan and the region by prosecuting a war that turned into an occupation. In a book I read early on called “Afghanistan, the Bear Trap: The Defeat of a Superpower,” Pakistani General Mohammad Yousaf was contemptuous of the earlier U.S. role in what played out as a decade-long proxy war waged by Jihadist Mujahideen against Russian occupiers. Yousaf, from his post in Pakistan’s ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate), revealed he had covertly run the tactical side of the fractious Mujahideen Jihad.
Also covertly, he wrote, the U.S. became the source of most of the armaments used by the Jihadis in a “death by a thousand cuts” campaign that finally, in 1989, drove the Soviet occupiers back to Russia (see “Charlie Wilson’s War,” the Tom Hanks movie about the then-secret flow of support and weaponry — including Stinger missiles — that ended almost immediately after the last Russians crossed the bridge out of Afghanistan).
The abrupt cutoff of covert US weapons supplies, Yousaf asserted, was all the evidence needed that American support for the Mujahideen Jihad — and for the Afghan people for that matter — was never more than transactional and thus redirected the Jihadi rage from Moscow as the target to Washington, D.C.
“I was convinced,” Yousaf wrote, “that it was the deliberate policy of the US government that (the Mujahideen) should never achieve a military victory in Afghanistan. Once the Soviets were out, America had avenged Vietnam, and then concerned herself with bringing about a stalemate.”
That stalemate begat the Taliban and the Taliban, Al Qaeda.
- • •
In late November after 9/11 a couple of dozen journalists and their teams were gathered at Jalalabad’s Spinghar Hotel, a fetid and walled-in Soviet-era building not far from the center of town. Several Americans and westerners in the group, including Pamela Constable of the Washington Post and Jake Sutton of the Associated Press Television News agency, cobbled together a belated post-Thanksgiving holiday dinner. Fixers hit the markets and came back with nine “elephant birds” — local turkeys — and helped the few hotel staffers bake them in a wood-fired stove. We had vegetables and onions in honey sauce, raisin stuffing, Afghan flatbread, rice and potatoes and pomegranate jelly. One in our group had managed to leave Peshawar with a few bottles of “Pakistani Maria” booze, a popular moonshine favored in alcohol-free Islam.
It was a somber gathering; the drinks flowed. The day before, four journalists had been ambushed and shot dead on the road to Kabul, the road we all knew we’d travel soon enough. We toasted our lost colleagues.
The next day, the Taliban gone from Jalalabad, some of us ventured into town to see what there was to see. In some kiosks in the open markets there were prayer rugs now for sale showing once-banned images; a national map with pre-Taliban names and notations, or with a depiction of the slain Tajik Jihadi leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. There were women and girls walking about in regular clothes; and even high heeled shoes peeking beneath the lower hems of the hated burqas still worn by some women.
By late spring though, June of 2002, other signs of “progress” were undercut by disturbing realities. America’s choice as Afghanistan’s “democratically elected” president, Hamid Karzai, failed to assemble a cabinet that satisfied the warlords and drug kingpins whose vicious turf battles went back generations.
Still, Karzai said his new government would provide “stability, security, justice, peace and economic well-being” for his country, and that “…there was no longer a threat from the remnants of Al Qaeda and their Taliban supporters.” But he spoke those words with 12,000 American troops in country, more on the way, with no end to the occupation in sight; with the most extreme form of Islamic law called sharia still the law of the land; with the economy in shambles; and with Al Qaeda and their Taliban supporters not gone at all, but merely in hiding. Waiting. Striking sporadically, their “death by a thousand cuts” strategy aimed at their new sworn enemy, the United States.
Nine months later, in March of 2003, the next phase: Iraq. The day before the launch of the U.S. attack, a highly placed Jordanian government source in Amman drove out to our location on the Iraq border and delivered a somber prediction.
It’s a mistake, the source said, fearful of the horrors to come in a new war against a Muslim country. “Once the U.S. is identified as the primary enemy of Islam, the infidel, any war will not end. You can pummel them militarily, of course, but you will never defeat them strategically. They will just wait. It’s been that way for a thousand years…”
I thought of Shady, who’d often said much the same thing.
- • •
A dozen years later, during my last trip to Kabul, we were reporting live from the roof of the walled-in building that housed our latest workspace in the moribund city center. The city was a powder keg, the country too, travel in and around Kabul restricted and lethally dangerous. Despite the claims that a U.S.-trained and -equipped Afghan Army was ready to stand on its own, there were frequent reports of deadly “green on blue” attacks — Afghan security forces sabotaging and killing American and allied troops.
One afternoon, waiting to give another live report, I looked from our rooftop to another rooftop a few hundred yards away. There were armed men standing post, some seeming to look our way. I asked one of our security guys who they might be, as they didn’t look like troops in any kind of army.
“Hekmatyar’s militia,” he said, referring to the renowned and feared Islamist leader Gulbudin Hekmatyar, driven from Kabul by sectarian fighting twenty years earlier, but now plotting his triumphant return. “They’re just waiting.”
In all the years of reporting from the region — from Afghanistan and Iraq and then from one or the other, again and again — it had come to this: an incursion that became an invasion and then an occupation. “Nation building” that built nothing that would last. A war so depleted of identifiable goals that the only participants who continued to benefit were the corporate and mercenary contractors — and their corrupt local partners — for whom the uncomfortable and still deadly stasis was a viable business model. We had seen bravery and death, American troops and Afghan fighters willing to risk all for ideals or a sense of duty still distinct despite the chaos on the ground, and signs of progress that led nowhere and seemed illusory in retrospect.
I looked at the men with guns on the rooftop across the way from ours.
And thought again of Shady, to a day back near the beginning of things in Afghanistan when he drove us from Jalalabad back toward Pakistan. At the border that day, at Torkum Gate, Shady had to stay behind when we passed through to look for another driver to take us to Peshawar. For reasons we didn’t quite understand, Shady hadn’t been allowed through. From the other side of the wire fencing he called to me and I walked back. He was crying, asking me to get him through, to get him out of his own country, that he was my brother.
He had said “There is always fighting. There always will be.”
I saw him many times after that day, even years later when he landed a job in the motor pool at a U.S. military installation. I agreed to be a reference in the applications he and his brother Imron made for the visas needed to leave for America, but though Imron’s was approved Shady’s was not.
Watching the terrible endgame play out these last weeks, I wondered of course about Sadaryab Shirzad. Shady. I have no idea what happened to him.
Mike Taibbi is a former correspondent for NBC News.